This was a huge learning experience for me, and there's more learning to come. I have been very fortunate in that I got work within the first weeks of signing and it's been fairly steady ever since. There will be times of feast and famine with any market, but I am incredibly grateful to be where I am right now. But here's how I got to where I am.
To start, I talked to some of my friends and peers who were already working with agencies to find out how that was working for them. All in all, their experiences have been positive, so I decided to look more into it and ask myself some questions:
1.) What does an agency do?
Well, as I understand it, an agency does a lot of networking, advertising and marketing for you, the artist! Agencies often have access to jobs and projects that are not publicly announced, and can negotiate good rates for you, though it varies. Of course, this comes at a cost - an agent will take an average commission of 30% - 40% from the work they find for you. Bear in mind that you will *also* be paying 30% of your earnings to Uncle Sam in taxes (if you live in the States), so at the end of the day you might only pocket 30% of the original commission. Ouch.
Some agencies will also charge you a percentage of the advertising costs they spend on you annually. Only you can decide if that's worth it to you; in the end, I was happy to pay to be represented in trade shows and annuals that I had no access to any other way.
It's rough, but the folks at the agency gotta eat too, and the idea is that you get enough work at good enough rates to make this viable for yourself. It takes time to establish regular clients, so be sure to have a plan B or some savings while this is happening. I cannot stress enough how important this laSt part is. Publishing often works at a snail's pace, and even after you get work with an agency, payment can take 30 - 60 days to process after invoicing. There is no shame in being a barista or moonlighting as a circus clown in the interim.
2.) What do I want to do?
This probably seems like an obvious question, but it's important to be clear on the type of artwork you want to do, because every agency's body of work is different. Some agencies focus on editorial illustration, some on sci-fi, some concept design, some children's media and some are exclusively children's books.
While my heart is still in vis dev for animation, I've been really curious about doing children's books, greeting cards, stationery, wrapping paper, fabric patterns... so, being that I don't have many connections in these fields, going through an agent would be a great way to break the ice and see how that all fits. I researched lots of kid-friendly agencies online and selected the ones that had the most variety in the projects and clients they worked with.
It really is crucial that you do your research before contacting any agency; if I just submitted my stuff to an agency that specializes in, say, medical illustration, it would be obvious that I didn't take any time or consideration in choosing them, and that would reflect very poorly on me.
3.) How will this agency represent me?
My goal was not to be represented exclusively by an agent; that is, I wanted to open myself up to new clients and markets in addition to the ones I had already been working with, without the agency getting a cut from my existing, regular clients. This is a very important distinction to make, as some agencies prefer to take you on exclusively and all work, past and present, must be brought through them.
This arrangement works out well for some established illustrators who are specialized in their field, and I suspect that artists who choose to be exclusive might get top billing in the agency (but don't quote me on that, it's my own speculation). For me, however, this wouldn't work well. I live in one of the most expensive cities in the country and I have some very much beloved clients that I've worked with over a decade, so I didn't want to risk losing my existing income to commissions.
4.) How does this agency treat its artists?
I was lucky and recognized a few artists who were already represented by some of the agencies I was interested in, so I contacted those artists and asked about their experiences. How much was their agency's commission? How often were they getting work inquiries? How fast was payment? How aggressive are they with clients who do not pay? How was communication with the artist? What was it like if the artist could not accept work at the time? How high pressure was it?
If you don't recognize anyone with an agency that catches your eye, take a good, long look at the agency's website. Does it look professional? Is it current? How often is it updated? How readily available is each artists' work and contact info? An agency should be working hard for you, so that, in turn, you can work hard for it.
5.) What kind of work should I submit?
I touched on this before, but really take the time to see what kind of work will have the most appeal to an agency and what format/how many images they have requested. Often times these guidelines are posted on the submissions page/form of the website. Every agency is different, even the ones that represent the same types of illustration.
For the most part I submitted PDFs of my work from my self-published books, some older personal work and some professional work that I had full permission to use. Never, ever submit work that is NDA protected, even if you think no one will notice. That is how bridges get burned and why lawyers get paid.
Though most of my work is animal-centric these days, I made sure to include the rare human that I've drawn from time to time. It's good to have some versatility to show, but try not to be all over the map stylistically. Just because I *can* do clean UI vector art, doesn't mean I need to show it to an agency that favors painterly cartoon animals. ...besides, I hate doing UI with a passion. ;)
So I submitted to about a dozen well-researched agencies, and I waited.
About a month later, I got my first reply, which was a rejection and was chided for not having a cleaner-looking website. Oof! Of course, they were right about my website being a mess, so a good rule of thumb is to have your website updated and clean, because those art directors look at art websites all day, every day, which leads to burn-out. They don't want to have to dig around to get a clear idea of your body of work, and you shouldn't make them.
A month after that, I still hadn't heard from 8 agencies, got 1 more rejection and finally I heard from 2 more agencies, who were selecting their new artists at the end of the year. It so happened that both of these agencies do quarterly reviews for new artists, so maybe that's a common thing.
Anyway, yet another month passed and I kept in touch with the agencies while they sorted things out, and then singled out 1 of the 2 agencies, by virtue of my admiration of their artists and that they were great communicators, down to earth and very nice people all around.
When they came around with an offer, I was thrilled and confident in choosing them, having talked with one of their artists personally about their experience, and by building a relationship with their staff via email exchange. We negotiated an agreement, and here I am!
I hope this helps some of you who are thinking of going down this road. It's all new and wonderful for me right now and I really hope to make some fantastic work for new, wonderful people in this part of my journey.